Suicide: America’s Grim Bellwether, Part 1

by Jeanene Harlick | May 27, 2016 6:36 am

That decision marked the moment psychiatry swallowed me whole, and convinced me and all who knew me I was nothing but a walking bar code of DSM acronyms and pathology. I bounced from treatment program to treatment program for the next ten years; when I finally escaped the system in 2013, it was too late. My identity as “failed mental patient” was solidified, and I had glaring time gaps on my resume. I applied for hundreds of jobs; no one would hire me. I started a Web site, “A Disordered World”; it drew a small, enthusiastic audience, but no mainstream outlet would publish me and one even plagiarized me.

Living in poverty in 2015 – SSDI was, and is, my only income – evidence continued to amass that I’d never be granted entry back into mainstream life. My only viable next step, by the fall of 2015, was clear. It was time to take my life, once and for all. Death was preferable to the disgraced, economically insufferable, and solitary existence I was keeping.

Some people, including many mental health professionals, like to say suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But those of us living as members of disenfranchised, oppressed minority groups, and grappling with socio-economic hardship or psychological distress – or both – know better. Suicide is a permanent solution to a permanent problem. It is our only path to peace and dignity, an exit route from what we finally realize is a fundamentally unjust world. A world where the “American Dream” is a ruse and in which we are powerless agents futilely trying to re-charter our course, when the political ship captains would never deign to give us – the stokers shoveling coal in the boiling room – a second thought, much less a say in the ship’s path.

I believe – and the research I’ll summarize below should prove it – our suicide problem is the penultimate expression of growing multitudes of hopeless Americans; it’s citizens tired of working hard with no pay-off, while others earn millions posting selfies; it’s the voiceless speaking out in the only way now available to them; it’s driven by the same forces that made Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, against all reason, serious 2017 presidential contenders.

The numbers back me up. A news analysis showed that death rates are highest in counties where Trump’s support was strongest.19 These are counties who’ve lost significant numbers of manufacturing jobs since 1999 and whose residents are less educated.20 It’s a tragic example of how the personal is political.

“These Americans know they’re being left behind by the economy and by the culture,” observed The New Yorker about our nation’s “epidemic of despair”.21

Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy who studies America’s new class divisions, warned about the rise in middle-aged suicide:

“This is part of the larger, emerging pattern of evidence of the links between poverty, hopelessness and health”.22

Reducing suicide to a problem of the mentally ill is one of the top myths about this inextricably complicated act, according to the aforementioned WHO report. “Although suicide can be the epilogue of many psychiatric disorders, the majority of people who kill themselves are not patients of [mental health] services,” said leading British suicidologists Stefan Priebe and Alfonso Ceccherini-Nelli.23 Outside of the United States, where psychiatrists are less tied to the medical model, you find scholars calling for an end to the “faulty connection”24 between suicide and mental illness; you find researchers who are scathing in their criticism of traditional psychiatry’s blind adherence to medicalizing suicide as the act of the mad25, particularly in light of a growing body of research linking it to economic distress.26

Inside the United States, sociological dimensions of suicide are receiving increased recognition – but you have to look to venues other than psychiatry, mainstream news coverage and political press releases to find it. Groundbreaking research being undertaken in the fields of epidemiology, cultural anthropology, public health and history is demonstrating suicide’s connection to classism, poverty, prejudice, and discrimination – which helps explain, for example, why the ethnic group with the highest suicide rate in the U.S. is American Indians.27

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